John 4: the woman at the well

Updated: Apr 24

Yesterday, we heard the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, from John 4:4-42. I love this story. It is the longest conversation between Jesus and another person in any of the gospels, and it is with a woman. And not just any woman, but a Samaritan woman. Jewish men were not really meant to speak to strange women of any variety, and Jews were not supposed to associate with Samaritans at all, so this conversation was forbidden on all kinds of levels. We get a sense of that in the woman’s response to Jesus - “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  We can’t be sure if she was shocked or offended or confused by his request, but it is quite clear that their differences made it seem strange and unexpected. And so the simple fact that Jesus not only sits and speaks with her, but has a conversation so significant it is the longest one recorded by any of the gospel writers, speaks volumes about Jesus’ own heart for inclusion, and complete disregard of all of the rules about who was and wasn’t acceptable.


I could give you a whole load of background to try and explain the tensions between the Jews and the Samaritans, and a little of that will be helpful later, but for the moment I think it will be more helpful for us to try and imagine who the woman at the well might be today for us. Who is that we keep our distance from? As I said last week, I really do believe the welcome of this church is wide and genuine, and I don’t believe we would treat anyone with outright hate or rejection, but prejudice can be so deeply ingrained that we do not recognise it, and ignorance and insecurity can hold us back as much as intolerance. Is this the refugee woman at the well, who we don’t know how to talk to because we're not ready to hear her tale of trauma? Is this the trans woman at the well, whose eye we avoid in case she thinks we are staring or we say the wrong thing? Is this the homeless man at the well, whose evident distress makes us feel a guilt we don't quite know how to resolve?


Whoever it is, Jesus sits with them. And he invites us to do likewise. The disciples may not be present for the conversation between Jesus and this woman, but that’s because they’re off buying food. We wouldn’t know this from the text, because the author would have taken it for granted, but it was unusual for Jews to buy or accept food from Samaritans, and so they are off having rule breaking conversations of their own. It may be that the disciples were already a particularly enlightened bunch with regards to race relations when they met Jesus, but throughout the gospels we see evidence of their human weaknesses, and it seems likely that their attitudes to Samaritans were in keeping with those of their society. But then Jesus became their society and things began to change, until we see here that they could reach across ancient divisions through an act as simple as buying food, and that they could do it so naturally that it was barely deserving of comment. Just as the disciples walked with Jesus and began to live out the radical inclusion he practiced, so we are called to do the same. Because that’s when we begin to transform the world into the kingdom.


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Digging deeper into the passage now, we see that Jesus and the Samaritan woman very quickly get into a pretty deep conversation about living water and the nature of worship. (On a side note, I have a feeling that Jesus was one of those really irritating people who ask “How are you?” in a way that makes it impossible for you to give a polite “I’m fine” in response. It’s a wonderful and much needed gift, to be able to encourage people to speak honestly, but it’s not always comfortable to be on the receiving end of it.) I want to take a look at both of those themes, so let’s start with living water.


Given that the conversation takes place by a well, water seems a natural image to pick. We see throughout the gospels that Jesus often used examples or pictures that were relevant to the situation and lives of those listening to him, as a way of communicating that what he said was relevant to the situation and lives of those listening to him. What Jesus said still has meaning for the situation and lives of those who stop to listen to him - that’s why we’re here - but the example or pictures can sometimes feel a little unfamiliar. Not so here, though, as water always has been and always will be a necessity. It is as refreshing and as satisfying and as sustaining now as it was then, and so is the message that Jesus brought, though on a much deeper level.


But this image wasn't significant simply because of the proximity of the well and the qualities of water itself. The promise of water is an ancient one and it was a symbol that held much power. We looked at water in the scriptures as part of our harvest service, so I won’t repeat all of that now, but I will just pull out a couple of passages.


In Isaiah 58, God says “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed...you will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail." So here water is an image of righteous living, associated with justice and compassion. Then in Zechariah 14, it is prophesied that living water will flow from Jerusalem on the day that God becomes Lord of all the world. So water speaks too of the promise of hope and salvation, and of the glory of God.


I'm sure Jesus had those existing ideas and associations in mind, but he also endowed water with new meaning in our passage, as he declared “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”. As I suggested when we looked at Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, eternal life is not just life in the hereafter, but a quality of life that begins when we live more consciously in the presence of God. So water is also a symbol for the abundant life Jesus promised, a life overflowing with blessing (even if that blessing is not always the health and wealth of the prosperity gospel).


It may also help in understanding the full weight of this image to know that living water was a colloquial term for flowing water. Flowing water is dynamic and powerful and changing and varied. It can be a bubbling stream giving quiet pleasure or a roaring waterfall stirring a still pool or a steady river cutting wider banks or even a forceful shower washing away stubborn dirt. And in the same way, the water God gives can bring us peace and pleasure or it can stir us to action. It can change us and the direction we are headed in and it can cleanse us of even the most hardened of our faults. God knows our hearts and knows what we need, and so gives accordingly. It is never a case of one size fits all with God.


Throughout the scriptures then, water is a powerful image. It is that which refreshes and satisfies and sustains. It is the outpouring of a life dedicated to service. It is salvation and the glory of God. It is abundant life. It is the presence of God with us. It is a force that works in our lives in just the way we need. That is just the start of what Jesus offered to the woman at the well, and it is what he offers to each one of us every day. All that remains is for us to say the words of the Samaritan woman. "Please, give me some of that water."


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The conversation moves from living water to the nature of worship. As we hear in the passage, the Samaritans saw the centre of worship as the holy mountain, whereas the Jews saw the centre of worship as the temple. Their religion and culture had a shared heritage, but this was one of the main points of disagreement between them. Jesus seems to declare his allegiance when he says “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews”, but I think it is significant that salvation is from the Jews not only for the Jews. That doesn't mean the Jews are not included in salvation, but it does suggest the Samaritans (and other Gentile groups, for that matter) are not by definition excluded. In fact the Samaritans are afforded a particular honour in this passage, as it is the only place in any of the gospels that Jesus owns the title of Messiah for himself. This is also significant, because whereas many Jews imagined the Messiah as a conquering hero, the Samaritans expected a teacher. This is perhaps then a suggestion that the Samaritans actually understood the Messiah better than the Jews, a lesson in listening to and learning from those we might consider outsiders.


What is really important though is that Jesus quickly moves beyond these differences to point to a bigger picture, telling the woman that "A time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks". If it is spirit and truth that matter, all disagreements about location and practice ultimately seem insignificant. It is not the way in which the Jews and Samaritans are divided by the style of their worship that matters, but the way in which they are united by the honesty of their worship.


I think this encounter reminds us that no one is excluded or condemned because they do church a little differently. Just as Jesus called the woman to worship in the right spirit but did not demand that she worship in a particular manner, so I believe it is the same for us. Of course that doesn’t mean that anything goes when it comes to faith, but I do believe it means that God welcomes many different kinds of worship and will not deny or denounce anyone who comes to him with an honest heart. Perhaps I might even dare to suggest that this might apply even to those of other faiths, as in CS Lewis’ The Last Battle, when a Calormene finds himself in the new Narnia, and is told by Aslan that all the worship he offered to Tash has been accepted as offered to him, because it was offered with a true heart.


This is important not only because it reassures us of God's all embracing love, but also because it reminds us that if he does not exclude or condemn anyone, then neither should we. There is a place for frank discussion such as Jesus had with the Samaritan woman, and where practices or beliefs are harmful then it is right that we criticise and seek to correct, but those conversations must be had with grace and respect. And at any rate, most of the time I believe there is beauty in our difference as it expresses the wonderful kaleidoscopic glory of God. It is when diversity becomes disunity that we find ourselves in difficulty.


There is nothing wrong with paying attention to the details of how we worship, because those details are how we express ourselves, but they are not as important as who we express ourselves to and who we express ourselves with, and they must not distract from the bigger picture of our relationship with God and with our siblings in faith. There is room for all of us, whether on the mountain or in the temple or at the well. If we can learn that in the context of worship, perhaps we can also teach it to the world, and the church may bring the healing so greatly needed in a divided society.


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There are lots of other details we could pull out of this story. The woman recognises Jesus as a prophet when he tells her about her husbands, which speaks powerfully about the importance of being seen and understood, a theme we first saw back in chapter one when Nathaniel declared Jesus to be the Son of God when he said he saw him under the fig tree. The woman also becomes one of the first evangelists, which is really significant when there are still so many contexts in which the ministry of women is undervalued or even denied, and is part of a broader picture of Jesus empowering women in the gospels. And the people move from a faith built on the woman’s testimony to a faith built on their own experience, which echoes something of the experience many of us will have had growing up in families of faith, and reminds us of the need to both bear witness to others and create space in which they can meet God for themselves.


For now though, I want to offer some space for us to reflect on the story we have heard, through an exercise of imaginative contemplation. This is an aspect of Ignatian or Jesuit spirituality. If this is something you haven’t encountered before, please don’t worry as I will guide you through it.


In simplest terms, I will ask you to picture yourself in the story of the woman at the well. You may like to picture the scene as you think it would have been in first century Samaria, or you may like to picture it in a more familiar setting. Try to offer your imagination to God and see where it takes you.


As I lead you through the story, I will stop at a number of points to ask how you may feel or react in that situation, pausing to give you space to reflect. Try to respond honestly as yourself rather as the woman from the story. This is an opportunity to take on her encounter with Jesus for yourself.


The idea is that by entering the gospel story in this way, we are able to reflect on and respond to it through our emotions and imagination and well as our intellect and understanding, allowing God to speak to us through his word on different levels.


You may find that some aspects of the contemplation don’t relate to where you are right now and that’s fine. Perhaps uses those moments to sit quietly with God or move the contemplation in a direction that better suits you. You may also find that the contemplation raises things that require more time to process than we can devote here. I encourage you to hold onto those things and use them as a springboard to further prayer.

Please don’t worry if you’re not a very visual person and can’t easily picture the scene. Just try to focus on your thoughts and feelings instead. Different things work for different people. This is just something I have found can be quite powerful and I hope it may work in some way for you.


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I invite you now to settle yourselves and be still. Settle yourself in the presence of God and ask the Spirit to speak to you as you seek to meet with Christ. PAUSE


You leave your house and walk into the centre of town. It’s the middle of the day and it’s hot. The air is still and almost shimmering in the heat. Take a moment to place yourself in the scene and imagine what you can see…hear…smell. PAUSE


You head for the cool of a tree and feel yourself relax as you reach the shade. You’re out of the sun and the scrutiny of your neighbours. Stay in this place a while and rest in the peaceful atmosphere of a cool place in the heat of the day. PAUSE


After you’ve rested for a moment, you’re startled by a voice asking for a drink. You turn around and see a man sitting just a few feet away. He is a stranger here and yet he feels almost familiar. How do you feel as you look at him? PAUSE


Again he asks for a drink. Something in you resists the request. What may be stopping you from responding to his call? PAUSE


The man gets up and walks towards you. He looks at you with kindness and understanding. After a moment he speaks again. “If you knew the gift of God and who is asking you for a drink, you would ask me and I would give you living water.” You look around but the man has nothing with him. He has no water to give. It doesn’t make sense. What else feels confusing or impossible to you now? PAUSE


The man doesn’t give up and walk away. Instead he says, “No one who drinks the water I give will ever be thirsty again. The water I give is like a flowing fountain that gives eternal life.” What does it feel like to hear those words? PAUSE


You hear yourself asking for some of that water. What is it that makes you long for it? PAUSE


You are half expecting him to produce a flask from somewhere, but the man simply smiles and sends you on an errand. Your heart sinks as you realise you can’t do what he asks. He obviously doesn't know the truth and you must come clean. What is it that you need to tell him about? PAUSE


You could fall down as he tells you he already knows and praises you for your honesty. How does it feel to realise this man knows you so intimately? PAUSE


There's clearly something important on his mind because as you speak of worship, suddenly he tells you, “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth.” What does this mean and how are you called to respond? PAUSE


You know that this man is very special, but still you are amazed when he tells you he is the one you have been waiting for. How does it feel to be in the presence of the one who calls you back to God? PAUSE


You run to tell everyone you know about this man you have met, and your enthusiasm is clearly catching because they want to meet him too. When the crowds have quietened down you go back to find him. What do you say to him now? Take this time to talk with Christ or simply sit in his presence. You may like to return to any thoughts or feeling raised by this contemplation or bring him something else that is on your heart.  PAUSE


I now invite you to bring this time of contemplative prayer to a close. As you do, be aware that you remain in the presence of God, and ask the Spirit to continue to speak to you through this experience of Christ. PAUSE

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